What 420 Means: Global Marijuana Day

What is 420

April 20 marks World Marijuana Day, also known as “420”. This date has become a symbolic day for cannabis enthusiasts around the world, who gather to celebrate the plant and its culture. But where does this tradition come from and why is it celebrated on April 20? I explain the origin of 420, its meaning and how it has become the day of the advocates of legalization and decriminalization of cannabis.

What does the number 420 mean?

For those outside the cannabis world, “420” passes as just another number, perhaps meaning nothing in itself. It could indicate anything: a weight, a price, a street address, a shift number in the bank waiting room. Indeed, there is no number that has no meaning: by definition, it is a sign that always represents something.

But here, in this cannabis brotherhood, we all know what 420 stands for. Smoke, sweet smell, a five- or seven-pointed leaf, a sticky flower, a joint going around in a round of friends.

The 420 is a wink, a not-so-secret code, a way of collective identification for all of us who orbit around the world of marijuana. An acronym for a conversation: what we talk about when we talk about reefer. That’s why, for some time now, we can’t know exactly how long, every April 20, in more and more places around the world, we celebrate something like Marijuana Day.

Thus, at 4:20 p.m. on the afternoon of the 20th of month 4, users of the millenary plant all over the planet are left to honor the moment, or upload to their social networks some allegorical manifestation of marijuana flowers. Instagram is filled with virtual smoke and animated GIFs, some radio stations play reggae, grow shops discount is, rappers – from Snoop Dog to Wiz Khalifa, and from L-Gante to Duki – flag the plant, and the whole blue planet called Earth gets a little greener.

Origin of 420

What is less known, by the way, is where this number comes from, how it was born, for what reasons and how these three numbers that make up 420 – the message – were linked to the cannabis struggle.

There is a lot of mythology surrounding the 420 acronym. On the one hand, some say that this was the code used by California police officers to warn each other that they had a marijuana crime on their hands (“Marijuana smoking progress”). For others, 4:20 is tea time in Holland; and some say 420 is the chemical components of the Cannabis sativa plant. But these are all failed hypotheses. The truth about the origin of 420 lies in the spirit of five teenagers in the 1970s.

What is the true meaning of 420?

The origin of 420 dates back to the 1970s in California, United States, where a group of young high school students from San Rafael High School met at 4:20 pm to smoke marijuana.

Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz and Mark Gravich, a quintet that in early youth called themselves the Waldos, are the only ones who can show physical evidence that they had anything to do with the birth and heyday of 420.

According to the story they have told over the past two decades, it all began on an autumn day in 1971, harvest time.when the Waldos learned that a member of the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard was no longer able to care for their (illegal) crop of marijuana plants.

As if it were a treasure hunt, the Coast Guard agent himself was said to have made a map so that anyone who wanted to could get there. Somehow, that got through to the Waldos, who decided to go for the vegetable booty.

So, the Waldos arranged to meet at 4:20 p.m. at the school’s Louis Pasteur monument, since at that time they could all arrive on time after the extracurricular subjects they were each taking.

The first outings to look for the crop were a failure, but the group did not give up on the idea of getting the marijuana for free. “We’d meet at 4:20, get in my old 66 Chevy Impala and, of course, smoke our way to Point Reyes. In fact, we smoked the whole time we were out there. We did it week in and week out,” Steve told the Huffington Post some time ago.

The history of the secret code of marijuana 420

The code they used among themselves for these escapades began to be “Louis 4.20”, until the number 420 simply survived. The treasure was never found, but the custom remained, and the boys began to meet to smoke on a wall outside the school (“wall”, hence “Waldos”).

For them, “420” was a way of talking about marijuana without being understood by their teachers, their mothers, or other classmates who did not share the habit of consuming the sweet plant, in a time when social tolerance was not what it is today.

The code could have been born and died with these five friends, but there are twists of the universe that have no logical explanation. San Rafael, the California city of the Waldos, is 30 miles from greater San Francisco.

How did 420 become popular to talk about marijuana?

The Grateful Dead, one of the iconic California hippie and psychedelic bands of the late 1960s, left the big city for a while and moved to Mary County, an area just a few blocks from the Waldos’ school. A twist of fate or destiny.

Mark Gravich’s father, one of the Waldos, took over management of the Dead’s real estate holdings. Dave Reddix’s older brother, Patrick, was the manager of an alternative band that some of the musicians had put together with David Crosby, because he was good friends with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.

Thus, the Waldos began to frequent the rehearsals of the mythical band and to smoke marijuana with them. “So we used to hang out and listen to them play music and smoke while rehearsing for concerts. I think it is possible that my brother Patrick may have spread the 420 through Phil. And so was I, because I was hanging out with him and his band as a roadie (lead) when they were doing a summer tour that my brother was leading,” Reddix recounted.

The Waldos also agreed to the band’s parties, so the 420 literally passed by word of mouth. “We’d go with Mark’s dad, who was a modern ’60s dad,” Steve told Huffington Post. “There was a place called Winterland and we were always backstage running, or on the stage itself, and, of course, we’d use those phrases. When someone rolled a joint or something, it was “Hey, 420.” Thus, the term began to spread throughout the community, he said.

On December 28, 1990, a group of Deadheads (as Grateful Dead fans called themselves) in Oakland handed out flyers inviting people to smoke 420 on April 20 at 4:20 am. in the afternoon. One of the flyers ended up in the hands of Steve Bloom, former columnist for High Times magazine, the world’s first cannabis culture publication. Thus began the true global expansion of the code, almost 20 years later than the original Big Bang.

First time 420 was published 420 in a cannabis magazine

The famous cannabis magazine High Times featured the 420 pamphlet in a 1991 article and began referring to the term 420. The Waldos code crossed borders and cultures and returned to its origin. The eternal return: in 1998, one of the Waldos warned that they were who they were, and a High Times reporter revealed, for the first time, the 420 origin story.

Finding the illegal treasure

The story could end here. But in 2016, after investigating for two years, the Waldos finally met the owner of those early illegal marijuana grows. He was Gary Newman, who was already 68 years old. The old guard told them that, while stationed at Point Reyes, he tended the lighthouse in the area and planted the famous planter on federal land very close to his place of work.

He farmed for several years, but sure enough, in the fall of 1971, the agent was afraid of being caught by the police and it was then that he drew the treasure map and gave it to his brothers-in-law, Bill and Pat McNulty. It had been Bill who shared the map with Steve Capper. Paradoxically, Newman was 45 years unaware that his lost seedling was the inspiration and origin for a code that today is even more famous than the Grateful Dead.

Fero Soriano
Periodista especializado en la historia del cannabis. Autor del libro "Marihuana, la historia. De Manuel Belgrano a las copas cannábicas". En poco más de dos décadas de periodismo, fue distinguido [...]

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